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Analysis: Summer Learning in the South & Northeast, Ventilation in the West — How 2,100 Districts & Charters Plan to Spend COVID Relief Funds

FutureEd analysis of Covid-relief spending plans of 2,077 school districts and charter organizations in 48 states compiled by Burbio. The per-pupil-spending category reflects projected expenses by local agencies that include spending targets in their reports. (FutureEd)
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This essay originally appeared on the FutureEd website.

In the South and Northeast, summer learning tops the list of how school districts and charter schools plan to spend their federal COVID relief money. In the West, it’s upgrades to ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems. In the Midwest, hiring and paying teachers and other academic staff emerge as top priorities. And while the internet is rife with stories about school districts using federal relief aid for athletic facilities and other seemingly extraneous expenses, the problem appears to be less prevalent than recent headlines would suggest.

These are among the findings of a FutureEd analysis of the COVID relief spending plans of nearly 2,100 local education agencies in 48 states serving some 40 percent of the nation’s public school students. (Tennessee local plans include funding from an earlier round of Covid-relief aid and South Carolina uses a unique set of spending categories. When possible, we include data from the two states in the FutureEd analysis. Georgia asked local agencies to combine spending on afterschool and summer learning into a single category, and many of the districts invested heavily in these priorities. Hence, when we calculated the average per-pupil spending on afterschool and summer programs combined, it jumped to $436, more than twice the average for afterschool and summer learning separately. ) The analysis covers districts and charter schools receiving $46 billion of the $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) under the federal American Rescue Plan as of Dec. 23 and offers the most comprehensive picture to date of local and regional COVID response spending. The information company Burbio gathered the local spending plans from a range of public sources and sorted the proposed spending into more than 100 categories. 

The ESSER funding was distributed via the federal Title I aid formula, which supports low-income students. As a result, some districts serving impoverished communities have received more than $10,000 per student in COVID relief aid and others have little or no funding. 

Local school agencies have wide latitude in using the funds, as long as the spending is geared toward reopening schools safely and helping students recover from the pandemic. States must monitor local spending, and the federal government can audit district and charter school spending as well.  

FutureEd identified national spending trends and patterns in the four U.S. Census Bureau regions, since the demographics and educational profiles of the regions vary. 

The national trends that emerged from the analysis include: 

Staffing

More than half of the school districts and charter organizations in the Burbio sample plan to spend COVID relief funds on hiring or rewarding teachers, academic specialists and guidance counselors, making this the top or second-highest priority in each region of the country. Despite concerns about how to sustain such spending when the federal aid runs out in 2024, districts and charters expect to invest an average $345 per pupil on teachers and other instructional staff. 

A total of 268 local education agencies plan to provide staff bonuses or incentive pay, about 12 percent of the sample. And 883 localities plan to pay for training for existing staff members, averaging $92 a student. Bridgeport, Connecticut, is using $16 million of its $100 million in relief aid to hire new teachers, assistant principals, instructional supervisors and aides, but also for a “teacher leader” stipend for experienced instructors who can guide others. Mission Achievement and Success, a charter school in Albuquerque, is spending more than half of its $6.6 million allotment on its teachers, including hiring additional special education instructors and math and reading interventionists.

Climate Systems

Among the most expensive priorities is improving ventilation and upgrading heating and air conditioning systems. About half the education agencies, 1,090, expect to spend money on school climate systems, and it’s a top-three priority in every region. The spending averages about $384 per student across agencies choosing this option. The plans range from thousand-dollar investments in filters that block the spread of COVID to multi-million-dollar plans for replacing entire heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has budgeted $50 million of its $2.5 billion in ESSER III funding to provide 55,000 portable, commercial-grade air scrubbers for every classroom and common room. St. Joseph’s School District in Missouri is budgeting its entire $25 million toward HVAC upgrades.

Extending Learning Time

Summer learning and afterschool programs emerge as the top strategies for helping students recover academically from the pandemic’s impacts. More than half the districts and charter schools in the sample, 1,125, plan to spend COVID relief money on summer programs, and 733 plan to fund afterschool learning opportunities. Another 356 include summer and afterschool in a combined listing, and 183 are extending the school year or adding weekend classes. 

Among the districts and charter schools that include spending figures, the average was $168 per student for summer learning and $130 for afterschool programming. In Washington, D.C., the KIPP charter school network has earmarked $1.7 million for a summer-learning initiative for its 6,800 students. Georgia school districts, in particular, are budgeting significant amounts toward extended-day programs. For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools is proposing to spend $127 million, nearly half its allotment, on afterschool and summer programs, and Fulton County Schools is budgeting $98 million, or 58 percent of ESSER III money, for summer learning. (Georgia asked local agencies to combine spending on afterschool and summer learning into a single category, and many of the districts invested heavily in these priorities. Hence, when we calculated the average per-pupil spending on afterschool and summer programs combined, it jumped to $436, more than twice the average for afterschool and summer learning separately.)

The investments fit with the American Rescue Plan’s requirement that at least 20 percent of district-level ESSER III funds go toward reducing student learning loss. And state education agencies are required to spend at least 1 percent of their ESSER III funds on summer learning and 1 percent on afterschool programs. A somewhat smaller number of local school agencies, 313, plan to increase spending on attendance, enrollment and engagement activities to get more students to participate in the regular school day and year. 

Tutoring and Assessments

Tutoring is another popular approach to giving students more time on task and helping them recover from lost learning opportunities during the pandemic; at least 654 localities are earmarking funds for a strategy that research has found to produce a substantial return on investment if implemented effectively. In Tennessee, where the state legislature last January established a statewide ALL Corps tutoring initiative, 65 of the 81 local COVID spending plans submitted to the state include funding for tutors. Chicago Public Schools is spending $25 million of its $1.8 billion ESSER allotment to train 850 literacy tutors. The Houston Independent School District, roughly half the size of the Chicago district, is making a bigger bet, budgeting $113 million for tutoring, roughly 14 percent of its relief funding. One small district in Arkansas, Parkers Chapel, is dedicating its entire $630,000 ESSER allotment to tutoring. Average spending for tutoring among the 654 local agencies in the Burbio sample providing funding figures is $136 per student. 

Another 442 local education agencies are funding math and English coaching, while 784 are spending on instructional materials and 826 on software for instruction and other purposes. The Granite School District in South Salt Lake City, for instance, plans to spend $7.5 million of its $97 million allotment on expanding online learning opportunities for students at different skill levels. And Richmond Public Schools in Virginia is devoting $65 million, more than half of its ESSER III total, for a literacy push that includes hiring new staff members, training existing teachers, tapping extended-day partners and purchasing new instructional materials, software and books.

Despite efforts by testing critics to reduce the volume of student assessments in schools, just over a quarter of the local education agencies in the FutureEd analysis plan to invest in developing or administering student academic assessments, as they work to understand the extent of students’ pandemic learning loss.

Mental Health

Helping students recover from the isolation and trauma of the pandemic emerges as a priority in many local plans. About a third of those in the Burbio sample, 715, list social-emotional learning in their spending plans, including monies for curricula, classroom materials and training, at an average cost per student of $102. Social-emotional instruction often focuses on helping students manage their emotions, relate to other students effectively and develop strong organizational and study habits.

Additionally, 701 localities, a third of the sample, are hiring psychologists or mental health professionals, at an average cost of $110 per student. The priority emerges in other spending as well: 537 districts and charters plan to invest in behavioral and mental health initiatives, and 323 in counseling and mentoring. Many districts are pursuing a combination of strategies: the Syracuse, New York, school district, for instance, expects to spend more than $1 million on social-emotional learning curricula, $3.5 million on intensive support for students and nearly $13 million on hiring psychologists, counselors and social workers. 

Remote Learning 

Remote instruction and technology remain key priorities despite the widespread return to in-person school. A third of the districts and charters in the Burbio sample plan to use American Rescue Plan funds on student mobile devices, spending an estimated $201 per student, and 605 plan to pay for “technology that supports learning and enables students to learn anywhere.” 

Another 502 plan to invest in improving internet connectivity, and 371 are spending on virtual models, online schooling or distance learning. Average spending on technology ranges from $79 per student for connectivity to $201 for mobile devices. The McAllen Independent School District in Texas is spending $16 million on mobile devices for its 22,000 students, and Milwaukee is spending $20 million for its 74,000 students. 

With many school districts experiencing security problems when they transitioned to online learning during the pandemic, some are proposing to use federal aid to buttress their digital defenses, as allowed under Education Department guidance. The Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, for instance, plans to spend $30 million, or $86 per student, on cybersecurity.

Regional Trends

The FutureEd analysis found both similarities and differences in local spending plans across the four Census Bureau regions. The Burbio sample, which captures about 10 percent of districts and charter schools nationwide, includes about a quarter of the local education agencies in the South, 10 percent in the West and about 5 percent in the Northeast and Midwest.

Local education agencies in the Northeast and South had the same top spending priority, with two-thirds of local education agencies in the former and nearly three-fifths in the latter pursuing summer learning. Funding and supporting teachers, counselors and academic staff emerged as the No. 2 priority in both regions, with spending planned in 60 percent of Northeast localities and 52 percent of those in the South. HVAC spending was No. 3 for both. But after that, the regions took markedly different approaches. 

Half of the Northeast districts and charters planned to invest in afterschool programs and about 40 percent supported spending on psychologists, social-emotional learning and staff professional development. In contrast, nearly half the Southern localities planned to spend on software and instructional materials, with about 40 percent investing in further efforts to recruit, train and retain teaching staff. 

In the West, HVAC upgrades led the list of priorities, with 62 percent of districts and charters planning to invest in such projects. Spending on teachers and academic staff was listed in 58 percent of the local agencies, professional development in 52 percent, and psychologists in 47 percent. 

The top priorities are reversed in the Midwest, with two-thirds of localities spending on teachers and academic staff and nearly 60 percent on HVAC. Summer learning came as the No. 4 priority in the West — with half the district pursuing it — but doesn’t appear on the Midwest list. Instead, about 40 percent of school districts and charters there are spending on instructional materials and professional development, and about a third are investing in other facility repairs, personal protective equipment and technology.

The FutureEd analysis found some instances of local spending priorities that seem only marginally, if at all, related to pandemic recovery. The Texarkana, Texas, school district is planning to spend $171,000 on band instruments. The school board in Burlington, Wisconsin, approved $100,000 to buy a 3D cadaver table for a high school’s anatomy course, allowing students to dissect virtual corpses via touch screen. Natchez, Mississippi, is hoping to break off $3 million of its federal aid for a $34 million renovation of a high school and middle school. 

But as a percentage of proposed COVID response spending in the Burbio sample, such expenditures do not seem substantial. While spending on athletic facilities has garnered substantial news coverage, for example, only 27 local education agencies in the 2,100-agency Burbio sample — barely 1 percent — are proposing to spend relief funds on athletics.

Importantly, much of the $46 billion covered by the FutureEd analysis has not been spent, the U.S. Education Department reports. Local agencies have until September 2024 to obligate the American Rescue Plan money that Congress approved in March 2021. School districts may change their spending priorities between now and then, and local leaders will undoubtedly face substantial pressure from advocacy groups and commercial entities to direct ESSER funding in their direction. Already, a North Carolina school district that had planned to spend $10 million on ventilation upgrades shifted the money to personnel bonuses in fall 2021 amid severe staff shortages. In Texas, COVID relief funding has been withheld from two districts until they remove books from their libraries that some have found offensive. There’s an important role in the months ahead for state and federal regulators and local media to ensure that spending stays focused on helping students rebound from the pandemic. And, ultimately, the effectiveness with which plans on local drawing boards are executed matters most. 

Still, at this early juncture, the spending plans of districts and charter school organizations educating 40 percent of the nation’s public school students provide valuable insights into the pandemic response priorities of the nation’s local education leaders, and they provide a reason to be optimistic about local leaders’ commitment to spending ESSER monies in ways that make a difference for students. As Burbio adds what it hopes to be thousands of local education agencies to its spending database in the coming weeks and months, FutureEd will publish additional analyses detailing how local education agencies are deploying an unprecedented infusion of federal funding for COVID recovery. 

Phyllis W. Jordan is editorial director of FutureEd, an independent, nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She is the author of Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism, released by FutureEd and Attendance Works. Bella DiMarco is a policy analyst at FutureEd.


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